By Ridge Mahoney
Like it or not, David Beckham is still the only soccer player who moves the sports media needle in the United States.
News of his torn Achilles' tendon and probable absence from the World Cup emerged from a fierce blizzard of stuff Sunday, during which NBA, NHL and exhibition baseball news were submerged by the announcement and subsequent debate and analysis of which 65 men’s Division I basketball teams will duel for the national title, and which won’t.
Far more people were outraged by the exclusion of, say, Virginia Tech from the Big Dance than were crestfallen or – perversely -- thrilled by word of the Bad Achilles. Surely the prospect of England vs. USA in the World Cup on June 12 had exacerbated excitement and awareness of Beckham, yet in the three years-plus since his move to MLS and the Galaxy was announced, he's been the main icon of the sport in America.
It’s not right, and an insult to the masses people working their tails off at Major League Soccer and U.S. Soccer and hundreds of other organizations to get the game more prominence in America, but star power trumps all else, as does a pop-star wife, eight-figure salary, and millions more in endorsements. And how lame did it look, for example, last year after Beckham clandestinely orchestrated a mega-luminous loan deal to AC Milan, for America’s best player to leverage his own, and ultimately feeble, stint at Bayern Munich?
The career of Landon Donovan, ironically, got a boost from Beckham, his teammate on the Galaxy and occasional debate foe regarding issues as diverse as leadership, commitment, professionalism, and dinner checks. In U.S. pop culture, he suddenly became the guy who played on the same team as DAVID BECKHAM, never mind he’d also represented his country at two World Cups, won several league titles, married an actress, etc.
Both went on loan to European clubs in the past few months; one unintentionally inflicted an injury to a probable World Cup opponent (Ashley Cole), and now the other will likely watch the event on crutches. It can be said that in the past 10 weeks, while on loan at Everton, Donovan eradicated much of the consternation and disdain aimed at him from European observers respectful of his talent yet unconvinced of his mettle. But not for a few more months can we know if a big-time club will shell out big bucks, in MLS terms at least, to buy up Donovan, and he can showcase his skills over there long-term.
Everton and manager David Moyes may have been the ideal setting for Donovan to showcase his abilities, as was Beckham’s arrangement at AC Milan. Yet Moyes has severely hedged about Everton paying for a transfer in the summer; he mentioned maybe Donovan could come again on loan next January, if he’s still with the Galaxy. At Everton, like most other places, times are tight.
According to reports, AC Milan will take Beckham back next year on loan assuming he can get back to fitness. If Beckham recovers in six months, he can play at the tail end of the MLS season, a problematic scenario at age 34, yet possible.
Beckham is a tough competitor, but in his own right, and on his own terms. His desire to play in a fourth World Cup prompted the loan move to Milan in the first place. That bold maneuver tainted the Galaxy and MLS as small-timers, and his often lackluster play cheapened both himself and his employers.
A better effort last season and a run to MLS Cup burnished his image as a player somewhat, but there’s still way more notoriety about the jersey he’s sold than what he’s done wearing it, and due to a cruel slice of bad luck, that might be his lasting legacy in America.